At this moment in the 150 years, UCF and the fans of a program merely 40 years old breathe as exemplars of the tradition of ambitious outsiders. They ram against a football caste system in a country where people often take a rugged sport and refer to its titans as “blue bloods,” sometimes quibbling over which programs are “blue bloods” and which are not and which are not quite. The Knights (27-1 since 2017) aren’t in the Power Five but have shown in recent years a caliber superior to so much of said Power Five.
This creates a setting in which Power Five schools have caught the newfangled viral strain of fear of UCF, thus shrinking from any unselfish future scheduling of UCF, all while UCF needs to schedule Power Five schools to attain Power Five caste.
It’s a familiar brew of snobbery and resentment, as when one Knights fan said, “Oh, we’re on cloud nine,” and then followed up that immediately with, “We’re still fighting the fight against the Power Five. I hate to even say ‘Power Five’ because it really doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
That fan, Andrew Phegley, co-hosts the oldest Knights-centered podcast and views home games from the stands in part because he finds the hushed neutrality of the media box too confining. He played walk-on defensive back at Kansas from 1992 to 1996. He moved to Orlando in 2008. Before a date invited him to a UCF home game against Rice in 2010, he had not heard of any football at UCF.
He became part of that rare fan base that witnessed a program going from 12-1 (2013) to 0-12 (2015) to 13-0 (2017), for an Orlando school with the nation’s largest undergraduate enrollment, where classes began Monday, Oct. 7, 1968, or just as No. 4 Ohio State prepared to shut out No. 1 Purdue and remind Purdue of the accepted order.
Upon request, Phegley supplied a state of the union of UCF fans, for whom caste-system issues take up much more chatter time than they do for, say, Alabama fans.
“Tons of it,” he said. “Especially on social media. The UCF Twitter mafia argues with these people all the time. Because they’re the ones who don’t understand. They don’t understand where we’re coming from. Because they’re with teams [that] have been around a hundred years or something. They had it all handed to them.”
Such an arrangement has occasional value. It lent untold meaning Oct. 28, 2000, when Javier Beorlegui kicked a 37-yard field goal with three seconds left to give UCF a 40-38 win at Alabama, a game whose accounts included unthinkable passages such as “the Crimson Tide (3-5).”
That game stood as paramount in UCF football history, until a 10-6 win over Georgia in the 2010 Liberty Bowl, which stood until a 52-42 win over favored Baylor in the 2013 season’s Fiesta Bowl, which stood until a 34-27 ransacking of a pitiful Auburn in the 2017 season’s Peach Bowl. That last one almost got a rival with last season’s Fiesta Bowl, but UCF lost, 40-32, to LSU some 39 days after a horrendous injury took away UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton.
In the day-to-day, meanwhile, UCF fans ingest social media sneering from the blue-blooded, including unsolicited recommendations that UCF ought to join a bigger conference, which, of course, would require an invitation.
Meanwhile, the conference in which UCF plays, the 12-team American Athletic, is good.
Its prospective pathways to the four-team College Football Playoff are less good.
Those in the know recommend a scenario like the one envisioned for a spell with Houston in 2016: beat a nonconference somebody such as Oklahoma (which Houston did), then go unbeaten (which Houston didn’t).
Good luck with that, and compound that with the fact that in recent years, UCF has seen potentially helpful games with Power Five opponents Georgia Tech and North Carolina canceled because of scary weather. Now comes Stanford, fresh from rankings removal after the unexpected 45-20 mauling it took at Southern California and nobody’s idea of a villain, unless you count California. After that comes a trip to Pittsburgh.
Power Five is inbound, and the buzz ticks upward for fans and key visitors. “You know, we typically have a bunch of recruits at every one of our home games,” UCF Coach Josh Heupel said at his weekly news conference. “But, you know, the guys that we’re recruiting are excited about this game. We’re going to have a large contingency of recruits that will be here. It’s going to be an electric atmosphere.”
It’s the second part of a home-and-home, the first concluded in 2015, the year Stanford beat visiting UCF, 31-7, with such delights as a seven-yard touchdown reception by Christian McCaffrey and a 93-yard touchdown reception by Bryce Love. This one finds UCF with a compelling puzzle at quarterback featuring freshman Dillon Gabriel (from the same Hawaiian high school as Milton), Notre Dame graduate transfer Brandon Wimbush and freshly available Darriel Mack Jr., who shined at times last season in replacing Milton.
“It’s a different type of football game that we’re getting ready to play,” Heupel told reporters, citing Stanford’s renowned physicality and foreseeing a “limited number of opportunities, number of drives for you offensively. You’ve got to maximize those things.”
About 2,500 miles away, Stanford Coach David Shaw spoke of UCF’s offense, No. 5 total and No. 11 in yards per play in major college football, and said: “We’ve played fast teams before, but I don’t know that we’ve played anybody this fast in multiple years. This will be the quickest-tempo team we’ve played in years .”
UCF is, of course, the touchdown-ish favorite.
It could raise its record in the 2010s to 8-13 against teams that inhabit the Power Five.
It could raise its record since 2017 against those teams to 4-1.
It could continue perfecting the hard, old art of simultaneously winning the game and the argument, a burden first felt surely by the College of New Jersey.